As the SCORE team continues to learn how educators, students, and families are navigating the COVID-19 public health crisis, there is one critical resource we notice is central to the response: time.

Nearly two months into school closures, educators around the country and in Tennessee are working to stand up distance learning programs so that students can continue learning. Research in recent weeks has demonstrated the value of this time: Students may lose up to a year’s worth of learning and face widened achievement gaps as a result of losing one quarter of the school year.

Maintaining and accelerating learning as much as possible will be crucial in the months and years ahead, requiring ingenuity, planning, and investment. Our team was reminded of this during a recent COVID-19 interview panel where we learned about the response by Hamilton County Schools (HCS) early in the crisis. Key insights from Chattanooga remind us how important it is to make the most of the time we have to prepare for an uncertain 2020-21 school year.

In an evolving crisis, hours and days made the difference

Interactions with public health leaders early in March was key to Hamilton County’s COVID-19 response. District leaders attended an emergency management meeting on the pandemic on Monday, March 9, kicking off a multiday, rapid-response planning process focused on device access, curriculum, instruction, and nutrition. By Thursday, March 12, school leaders had a district plan, and on Friday, March 13, school leaders were preparing their communities for imminent school closures. The week of March 16, teachers were trained on the district’s distance learning plan and instructional programming launched on March 23. While many districts across the country reported only a day or two of advance notice before school closure, this extra time helped HCS prioritize and manage the limited capacity it had to address a crisis of unprecedented scale.

Have a strong plan, then make improvements

By making the most of the week before school closures, educators and leaders were able to troubleshoot issues while working off their initial plans. Since March 23, the district has made modifications to instruction – transitioning from review of old material to new learning, getting the number of lessons right to avoid overwhelming students, and redoubling efforts to contact the hardest-to-reach students. Within a week of the closure, district leaders created a central database to track and prioritize support to unreached students, resulting in contact with more than 95 percent of students within a month of the closure. Nonteaching roles were quickly redefined, with education assistants, social workers, and other employees handling device deliveries and case management of students for support services.

School leaders maintained communication with district leaders, while groups of teachers and students provided regular feedback. By setting a high bar for planning and providing clear paths for communication, district leaders say they gave educators and staff the confidence that they are effectively meeting student needs. In addition, public- and parent-facing strategies were implemented, including a one-stop website on district resources and regular weekly TV communications with district leaders. With all district employees focused on their immediate tasks and troubleshooting processes in place, no moment was wasted at a time when all resources were stretched.

Early wins create momentum for forward-looking initiatives

A month into the closure, district leaders turned their attention from immediate crisis management to medium-term planning. Issues included planning for high school graduation and how to accelerate student learning in the coming months. Solving these issues also meant leaning in on existing systems and strategies. With multiple years of assessment data and instructional practices to reflect on, district leaders are racing to empower educators with instructional practices and content to address longstanding “plague standards” – topics and skills that data showed students consistently struggled with in the district. With educators getting a crash course on instructional technology, district leaders are also working with educators to leverage this new learning in the fall.  

With the immediate crisis response behind us, many challenges face educators and leaders in the months ahead: safely reopening schools, addressing learning loss and acceleration, and helping students and educators navigate pandemic-related stress.

If there is one lesson to learn from Hamilton County Schools’ response to the pandemic, it is that having a plan matters – however imperfect it is. While no one could have predicted the scale and swiftness of school closures in March, districts have learned a lot these last two months to help create plans for a range of possibilities in the fall. Tennessee students are counting on that kind of leadership.

Peter Tang is SCORE’s director of research.